The Magazine

Put Out Better Flags

Let's unfurl some new designs.

Jun 30, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 41 • By STEVE CHAPMAN
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Some designers (Illinois, Massachusetts) made a perfunctory stab at originality by replacing the standard background blue with white, but the effect is distressingly reminiscent of a soiled bedsheet. If this were an English class, a lot of students would be flunked for plagiarism. Tennessee's might get a passing grade if it didn't look so much like neighbor Arkansas's. Alabama and Florida apparently got a group rate on their white banner with a red X. Other states would get marked down for belaboring the obvious. Citizens of Oregon, Kansas, and Indiana: Wouldn't you be able to identify the flag flying over the governor's mansion even if it didn't include your state's name?

Some of the flags are not pleasing to the eye but at least attain their own character, which remains unique mainly because no one would want to copy it. Rhode Island's gold anchor on a white field could have been filched

off a cruise ship. Colorado's, with a big red C amid three fat stripes of blue and white, belongs on a baseball cap, somewhere deep in the bush leagues. As for Maryland's weird mix of colors and symbols--well, if federal prosecutors want to get Martha Stewart to crack, they might fly one outside her window nonstop.

Some departures from convention work well. Animals are a better idea than you might expect, as demonstrated by California's grizzly bear and Wyoming's buffalo. But representations of people are rare for good reason. George Washington's visage manages to make the flag of Washington look like a very old, very tacky campaign button.

A few states have made a success of their chief symbol. Texas, with simple bars of red, white, and blue and a single white star, not only stands up well on its own, but elegantly complements the American flag. South Carolina's white crescent moon and palmetto tree on a navy background is as simple and winsome as a child's drawing. Arizona, with a blue bar beneath a sunburst of red and gold, succeeds through sheer audacity. Alaska's North Star-over-Big Dipper pattern is a triumph of minimalism. It's no surprise that the flag experts gave the No. 1 ranking to New Mexico's red Zia sun symbol on a bright yellow field. It has everything a flag needs and nothing it doesn't.

But these are the exceptions. There's no reason a nation of flag lovers should have so few flags that are worthy of affection. Georgians are to be commended for scrapping their pitiful old flag. So who's next?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.